Motherhood (cont’d), Guilt & Moth Balls

I have decided that the topic of the research proposal for my master’s degree will be guilt and shame in new motherhood, because my God if there are two emotions I’ve felt near-constantly since having my son 9 months ago it’s those. I was pretty good at the guilt thing before having a baby, particularly where pursuing my ambitions (writing, studying, going freelance) was concerned. But since the baby things have amped-up ten fold. Now, on top of kicking myself about not pursuing the ambitions, my inner monologue spends much of the day berating me for all the things it perceives I’m doing wrong as a parent. Whilst the rational side of my brain knows it’s wrong (or at least grossly exaggerating) and I’m doing the best I can, it’s a hard voice to ignore.

Since returning to London in January (how is it already March?!) we’ve started to settle into a routine, or at least we had started to, until the cycle of nursery-related illness started. In the past month alone I’ve had to keep C home from nursery three times (once for a full week). He’s currently on his second round of antibiotics and whilst he is livelier in himself he’s still coughing and congested. It’s felt like Groundhog Day for weeks; as soon as he starts to show signs of improvement he gets ill again. I feel bad for him but also for myself (and here’s a prime example of where the guilt comes in), because when I have to keep him home from nursery it knocks my schedule out of kilter too. Last Friday, for example, I had to miss a whole day of uni, and given that returning to my studies has been having a hugely positive impact on my mental health that hit me hard. As weekends are family time and Mondays/Tuesdays are time with my son, that’s meant not being able to do any uni work for several days, which is stoking the embers of my anxiety nicely.

But on the flip side, I’m trying to make the most of being with C on Mondays and Tuesdays. I’m conscious of the importance of being really present (the other part of my research project involves mindfulness interventions) and not distracted (still working on this but getting better). I’m also trying to make sure we have fun together, because I know this time will never come again. We now attend Zip Zap baby classes every Monday morning, which he loves, and this afternoon I took him to a free trial of the local Gymboree class (not so sure about that one – bit too ‘organised fun’ for my liking). Nothing makes me happier than seeing his little face light up when he experiences something new. He’s such an explorer and I want to nurture that as much as possible.

When I’m not guilting or attempting mindful parenting, I seem to be permanently preoccupied with a million and one things, from the important (booking summer holidays) to the exciting (organising my best friend’s hen do) to the downright mundane (moth balls for the wardrobes). It’s incredible how every spare second can be filled with so much stuff. Pre-baby me was not dissimilar, the difference now is that there’s even less spare time to do it in. Sometimes it feels like life is one giant to do list, by day it’s things relating to the baby and by night everything else. It was only last weekend, when my husband gave me the greatest gift of breakfast in bed and some time to read my dusty stack of magazines, that I realised how long it’s been since I allowed myself to just relax.

On the social front we’re managing pretty well. Now we have a baby we’ve realised that the best way to keep the social life ticking over is to invite friends round for dinner. Fortunately my husband is a total Masterchef so it’s working out well (for me, as it means I don’t have to cook..). I’ve been ordering cases of premium wine like there’s no tomorrow (in the guise of wanting to broaden my horizons, but in reality just wanting to get rat-arsed and have less painful hangovers) and our flat is perfect for hosting dinner parties in. We’ve also enlisted a couple of babysitters so we can have the odd night out too. I have to remind myself that a few months ago this seemed completely out of reach – it’s all about the small wins when you are navigating early parenthood, and this certainly counts as one of those!

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Eight Months In: All Change

The last three months have been, for want of a better word, insane. In November, after weeks of searching for – and finding – a new (two bed – more room for baby) flat in Brussels, it was all-change on my husband’s job front and we had to abandon signing the new tenancy agreement at the eleventh hour and re-focus our attention on finding a new flat in London to move into the first week of January. With a seven month old baby this was not the easiest task, but somehow I managed a two day trip to London with a ridiculous amount of luggage and my son for a series of back to back flat viewings, half of which I had to cancel due to a 1.5 hour delay on the train (thanks for that Eurostar). And the good news is that despite the cancellations and the tight timeline we were hugely fortunate to find a place that ticked almost every box.

Upping sticks and leaving Belgium so suddenly has been difficult to adjust to. One minute we thought we would be there for at least another year, the next we were moving back to London, the city where I lived on and off for 10 years but in all honesty didn’t see myself returning to live in, especially with a baby. But here we are. And now the dust is starting to settle I am seeing the many positives to this move. For one, we are closer to our friends and family. For another, I have been able to switch from a distance learner to an on campus student to complete the remainder of my Master’s course, which has just re-started after a year’s hiatus. The move also forced my hand where returning to work was concerned. I knew I didn’t want to to return to my job, but had been feeling nervous about quitting with nothing else lined up. Now I have the freedom not only to re-start my studies but also pursue my dream of becoming a freelance coach. And we have managed to find a lovely nursery for our son to attend three days a week whilst I pursue my goals.

In short, everything is positive. And as much as I don’t want to put a ‘but’ in here, I have to be honest and admit the last few weeks have been really tough. Our son is wonderful and he lights up my life, but the nights are still not great and besides being chronically tired I am constantly battling the inherent mum guilt about his well-being (Is he eating properly? Is he stimulated enough? Am I doing any of this right?) Since we returned to London my anxiety has returned ten fold, for reasons I can’t fathom other than a combination of tiredness, hormonal changes and a latent reaction to the stress of the past few weeks. C starting nursery the week before last was also anxiety-inducing, and since he started he’s had back-to-back coughs and colds which is inevitable but has nonetheless been tough to deal with. As his mother and the one who is not technically working in a nine to five role, the responsibility for his welfare lies with me. If he’s sick, I’m up all night with him, and I have to pick him up early from nursery. If the nursery is closed for bad weather (which is on the way, apparently – wonderful), he has to stay at home with me. Suddenly, the three days I have earmarked for work and study disappear, and my stress and anxiety levels increase. On the two week days I am scheduled to have him with me I worry that I should do more with him. The one downside to our new home is that the nearest park (Hampstead Heath) is a half an hour walk away, and in the immediate vicinity the pollution levels are very high (another thing I worry about, especially given our son is showing signs of having a weak chest). Whereas in Brussels I would take him out every day in the local area, here I wonder if it’s good for him to be constantly exposed to all of the pollution. But if we don’t go out my mental health plummets and he gets bored.

I hope I don’t sound ungrateful. Not a day goes by when I don’t count my many blessings. But burying emotions isn’t healthy, and maternal mental health is an important issue that needs to be discussed. It’s been eight months since I had my son and at least three days a week I still feel like I’ve been hit by a freight train. I do think the sleep deprivation is a big part of that, especially after a recent meeting with friends whose babies sleep through the night. But it’s more than that. Having a baby is wonderful, but if you already had issues with self-esteem and anxiety before baby came along, the addition of tiredness, raging hormones and the overwhelming feeling of responsibility that comes with being a mother can really mess with your head. Nobody discusses it but they should, because I’m certain I’m not alone in feeling this way. Some days are good, others are really, really bad. Even now. Especially now. Because now is when I thought I’d feel completely normal again. And sometimes I feel anything but.

But. Today is a good day. It didn’t start well, admittedly (son crying non-stop from 5am), but now C is at nursery, I am at my computer with (hopefully) a good few hours of study ahead of me, I have (much-needed) coffee and the sun is shining through the window. It is in moments like this I remember to breathe in, breathe out, to cherish, to soak it all up; the good, the bad and the indifferent. This crazy life. My life. Is. Beautiful.

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Okay, Mama?

I’ve been wanting to write a post about maternal mental health for quite some time, and as it’s world mental health day there seemed no better time than today. So (deep breath), here goes…

It started with the miscarriage. Nine weeks, although the baby technically didn’t make it past six. Nothing can prepare you for how it feels to see no heartbeat on the screen. Your throat dry, the air so still you could choke on it. A sympathetic touch from the doctor, then back out into the world. Except suddenly it’s different, all of it. And you’ll never be entirely who you were before that day.

After my miscarriage I wrote a blog post about it, and was inundated with responses from women who’d been through the same thing. Private responses, mostly, because they didn’t want the world to know it happened to them too. Of course I understood, because miscarriage is by its very nature a deeply personal thing. And yet. When nobody talks about an issue it becomes the proverbial elephant in the room. And the worst part of that is, if it happens to you, you’ve no idea you’re not alone.

Almost exactly a year after my miscarriage I delivered a beautiful, healthy baby boy. The delivery was traumatic, and afterwards I had to stay in hospital for five long days, hobbling around the room I was sharing with my husband and son dragging a catheter bag in my wake, and being poked and prodded (and, on one particularly mortifying occasion even photographed – yes, down there) by a steady stream of medical students who assured me that my case was very rare (hence the photos). It was, in short, nothing like how I had imagined giving birth to be.

A few days post-delivery a friend blithely commented in an email that “if women knew what childbirth was really like they’d never do it in the first place. That’s why they don’t tell other women.” I have to admit I take umbrage at this position. Granted, if you’re pregnant you probably don’t need to hear the detail of someone else’s traumatic birth (I learned my lesson sharing my experience with one pregnant friend who I’m afraid I may have scarred for life – if you’re reading this, sorry again), but surely it’s good to have at least a low level awareness that things don’t always go without a hitch. Because if you do go on to have a bad experience you know you’re not alone, and you’re not expected to deal with it alone.

Since having my son I’m not afraid to admit there have been some dark, dark days. I’d read about postnatal depression, but never thought anything of the sort would happen to me. And whilst I’m fortunate that I haven’t had clinical depression since giving birth, nonetheless there have been times when things have felt pretty goddamn hopeless.

I thought the first few weeks would be the worst, when we got home from the hospital and were trying to figure out what to do with this little person in our midst who would need feeding every two hours. And whilst the sleep deprivation was unimaginably hard, I look back on that time now with fondness because in some ways it was a hell of a lot easier than the last few weeks have been. I didn’t know about the four month regression until it hit, and my God did it hit, like a tsunami. One minute we were starting to get more sleep and thinking we had things figured out, the next: BAM! Everything we thought we knew was turned on its head.

Fortunately now (I write this touching wood) we’re coming out the other side, and working with a sleep consultant in the UK has contributed hugely to this improvement. But God, the guilt I’ve felt about it, the weight of people’s judgement when you say you’re trying the crying out method because you’ve reached the end of your tether and you’ll do anything to make things better. And the anguish when your baby is crying and you aren’t able to scoop him up in your arms and comfort him (before you judge I must point out the method involves going in every ten minutes to verbally comfort the baby, not just leaving them alone until they stop crying).

[As an aside, it feels horrible when you’re doing the crying out method but it works. My son now goes to sleep without a murmur, wakes only once or twice a night, and in the morning he still greets me with an enormous smile, so whilst that’s not conclusive evidence he won’t be mentally scarred in the long term, speaking as someone who’s started to get some semblance of her life and sanity back, it’s enough for me].

The point I’m trying (in my own rambling way) to make, is that motherhood is hard. Bloody hard. From conception onwards things often don’t run smoothly. It can be a lonely and emotional rollercoaster, and yet women are expected to deal with it and keep all the plates spinning: work, relationships, family. And the fact a lot of women are too traumatised and scared to share their experiences makes it all the more isolating when you’re going through it yourself. You don’t feel like you can ask for help because you don’t see others asking for help. You feel a failure because everyone around you seems to be coping so much better than you. Well my experience has shown me this is not the case. And it seems that finally the tide is starting to turn. Women are beginning to open up about the challenges of pregnancy, birth and beyond, and receive the emotional support they need. Long may it continue.

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Week 32: Amazon Warehouses and Hands-free Breast Pumps

Preparing for the birth of a baby feels a bit like preparing to jump off a really high ledge into choppy waters below. You’ve done your calculations and think you’ll be okay, but you know there’s a chance you’ll land on rocks or be sucked under by the current. Either way, you know you’re going to jump, so you may as well do it with the right attitude…

Our house is fast becoming an Amazon warehouse. My husband, bemused by the rapidly growing pile of (entirely alien) miscellaneous baby-related items by the front door, has become both adept at stepping around them and wise enough not to question their necessity. Quite frankly, I’ve no idea if we need it all or not, but at this stage that’s somewhat of a moot point. No matter how strong my willpower was in the early stages of pregnancy (“I shall only buy the absolute essentials”), it seems the third trimester urge to ‘nest’ is an impossibly persuasive force. Fortunately, thus far, I am still rational enough  of mind to avoid any really outlandish purchases (double ‘hands free’ breast pump bra anyone? Because nothing says ‘welcome home, honey’ like a lactating woman doubled over the sink furiously doing the washing up whilst a machine deposits her milk supply into plastic bottles attached to her breasts). But given how much I’ve been forgetting in the past few days (loath as I am to ever use the phrase ‘baby brain’, I have to admit something is afoot) it may only be a matter of time.

Having successfully completed a 15 hour pre-natal preparatory course, we now at least have a rudimentary understanding of the process of labour, which is nothing short of terrifying. As the day approaches I feel the panic rising up inside me. Whilst a natural, drug-free birth would obviously be the ideal scenario, my pain threshold is so low I’ll probably be screaming for an epidural before we’ve even reached the hospital. The stories in the pregnancy books of women who had ‘perfect’ natural births in the comfort of their own homes are all well and good, but forgive me if I prefer not to watch my husband giving himself a coronary trying to blow up the birthing pool as I writhe in agony on the floor, calling him every swear word under the sun. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll go as long as I can without pain relief. But the moment it becomes too much, get the gas and air on the go, hook up the TENS machine and fill that spinal syringe, because the role of stoic earth mother just isn’t me.

The thought of being solely responsible for a tiny, helpless human is even more frightening than childbirth. Even more so the idea this is for EVER. If we don’t immediately bond with the little rascal there’s no money back guarantee. We can’t return him. He’s ours. For life. It’s only now, as I stand on the precipice of parenthood, that I realise just what a big deal becoming a parent is, and have a genuine appreciation of all my parents went through to get me to where I am today.

But as big a responsibility as it undoubtedly is, it’s also an honour. When you’ve suffered miscarriage, as I have, you have a deep sense of the fragility of life, and perhaps an even greater sense of wonderment as a life successfully grows inside you. As hard as the next few months and years are bound to be (there are not words sufficient to articulate how much I will miss Sleep), I will try not to forget how much we wanted this baby, how lucky we are to have him and how much joy he had already brought us before he even entered the world. The countdown to meeting our baby boy is on, and we are ready for the challenge… ❤

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Third Trimester: Entering Warp Speed..

Today I’m 27 weeks’ pregnant, officially at the beginning of my third trimester. I can hardly believe how fast the last few weeks have gone, it feels like only yesterday I was staring at the digital test in disbelief, and now we’re 13 weeks (or less!) away from meeting our little man. Crazy. Despite the sleepless nights, leg cramps, mood swings and anxiety, I’m so excited about entering into this next phase of our lives. I know it’s not going to be easy – far from it – but I’ve needed a new challenge for a long time and this will certainly be that!

Talking of challenges, this week I’ve finally put to bed the first (long!) year of my Master’s course (or at least I hope I have – results of the assignment are still pending..) which is a huge relief. Now I can finally turn my attention to the list of ever-more-pressing baby-related tasks that need doing. We’ve managed to sort the basics (so he will at least have somewhere to sleep and something to be moved around in) and have this week managed to confirm a creche place starting in January (this has been really worrying me as in Belgium creche places are few and far between, with women urged to start the application process when they are only three months’ pregnant – what?!!!!!), but we have yet to fill out all the complicated paperwork (in French – which complicates things more, given that neither of us have much of a grasp of the language) which will confirm our maternity/paternity leave and baby-related benefits. And as for all the other stuff we’ll need, I’m not sure where to start!

Something else I have confirmed, after thinking about it for a while, is the presence of two doulas at the birth. In case you don’t know what a doula is (as I didn’t a few weeks ago), they are basically non-medically trained birth support partners. Apparently, evidence suggests that women who have additional support beyond their partner and medical team have shorter, easier labours. For us, there is also the additional concern of our limited language skills, so I see our team of doulas as being critical in ensuring that our wishes are actioned by the medical team. I also figure that the more support we have the better – living abroad is great, but at times like this you miss your friends and family more than ever.

So things are moving along, which is just as well, because if his recent Tyson-esque bouts of stomach boxing are anything to go by, this baby is keen to get out and make his mark on the world….

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Week 23 woes

I knew January would be hard, but this is something else. Navigating the rollercoaster of a stressful job all week, then spending every weekend trying to pull off my end of year master’s assignment would be brutal if I wasn’t pregnant. But it is what it is. The only way out is through. So on I go.

Last night I went to see the doctor. When I stepped on the scales she raised an eyebrow and told me I had put on 3kg in a month. Apparently rather more than the 1.5kg she would have expected. She put it down to ‘Christmas eating’ (fair) and told me to cut down my sugar intake (cue immediate guilt about the double sized portion of egg custard tart I had consumed not two hours before my appointment). She told me my blood pressure was low. I told her I was stressed, so she wrote me a prescription for a magnesium supplement, asked if I needed a doctor’s note for some time off work. I’d love that, frankly, but right now it’s not the solution.

I’m trying to manage my stress better. It’s strange knowing that now I’m not just responsible for myself but another tiny human. Whereas before I would have pushed through the pain barrier, stayed late every night in the office, deprived myself of sleep and food and whatever else stood in the way of hitting deadlines, now I just can’t do it. I’ve set myself boundaries – not working past 7pm being one of them. I’m also trying to adopt a ‘one day at a time’ mentality, focusing only on the things I can realistically achieve in each day, instead of the mountain of things I can’t. If it means deadlines sometimes can’t be achieved, then so be it. I’m human, not a machine.

Prenatal yoga three times a week is helping, but it’s not enough. So when it feels the walls are closing in – like last night – I’m just allowing myself to stop, talk to a friend, have a bath, do whatever I need to get my heart rate back down, my blood pressure back up. This baby is more important than work, than course, than anything. I have to prioritise him.

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Second Trimester Blues

Hamlet was wrong. Bump or no bump? THAT is the question.

Everyone tells you: “Wait until you get to the second trimester, the symptoms disappear, you’ll feel so good – make the most of it!” What they don’t realise is that when you’ve had a missed miscarriage you don’t want the symptoms to disappear. Far from it. In fact, if you had them every day you’d be relieved. Because it would be a sign that things were still okay.

Today I am officially sixteen weeks’ pregnant, and whilst I am finally having to agree my stomach is more rounded, it’s not the classic ‘baby bump’ I’d been led to believe I would have by now. It’s soft and wobbly, for one thing (much like my belly was before, if I’m honest), and it changes in shape and size from one day to the next (making me think, when it’s bigger, that it’s just water retention and/or bloating).

I’m desperately looking for signs that all is progressing as it should, despite the fact I know the odds are stacked in my favour. All was fine at the 12.5 week ultrasound scan. At 14 weeks I saw the baby move at a follow up appointment. And yet, because I’m haunted by what happened last time, I can’t bring myself to believe it’s all okay in there. I don’t know if I will believe it until the day I hold my baby in my arms.

Since week 13 I’ve been going to pre-natal yoga classes. And whilst I’m loving them, being surrounded by other pregnant women with big bumps can be a little anxiety-inducing. I feel jealous of the obviousness of their pregnancies, despite them sharing woes of back pain and sleepless nights. I long to be at the stage they are at, even though I know that wishing this time away is foolish. But this is what miscarriage does to you, sadly. It makes you scared to believe.

My next scan is in two weeks – the day we head home for the Christmas break. Maybe if all is still okay then I’ll be able to relax a little more and enjoy the holiday season. I really hope so!

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